Republic TV launched in the first week of May last year, with an exposé about the relationship between the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and the gangster turned politician Mohammad Shahabuddin. The channel aired an audio clip of a telephone conversation that allegedly took place between the two while Shahabuddin was in jail. Yadav apparently took instructions from Shahabuddin on how the police should act in cases of violence in Siwan, from where Shahabuddin was elected to parliament four times.
The next day, Kapil Mishra, a former Aam Aadmi Party leader, claimed on the channel that he saw Satyendra Jain, a cabinet minister in the Delhi government, handing Rs 2 crore in cash to Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. The day after that, Republic TV broadcast recorded conversations alleging that the body of Sunanda Pushkar, the deceased wife of the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, was moved from one room to another in the Leela Palace hotel after her mysterious death. Tharoor filed a defamation suit against the channel, and its co-founder and editor-in-chief, the television anchor Arnab Goswami. The Delhi High Court did not restrain the channel from airing news of Pushkar’s death, but directed it to send advance notice to Tharoor before airing any related story, and to respect his right to remain silent.
The stories were enough to draw eyeballs—the next week, the ratings-points numbers from the Broadcast Audience Research Council, or BARC—the industry body responsible for television-audience measurement in India—had the channel at top spot in the English-language news category. Republic TV had 2.11 million impressions in its debut week—52 percent of the total available in the category. (Each “impression” is an individual instance of viewing, even if a fleeting one.) In fact, by this metric, the channel had double the audience of its closest competitor—Goswami’s former employer, Times Now.
But other news channels cried foul, alleging that Republic TV was employing unfair tactics to bump up its ratings. For example, the channel had dual logical numbers, also called LCNs— it was registered under multiple genres on some cable distribution networks, making it appear more than once in the electronic programme guide, and so giving it more impressions as viewers cycled through channels. For instance, the distributor DEN Networks showed the channel among both its English-language news and Hindi news offerings in Delhi. Some distribution networks set Republic TV as their “landing channel”—the default channel displayed whenever viewers turned on their set-top boxes—which again meant giving it an additional LCN.
In protest, that month, the News Broadcasters Association—a body of private news and current-affairs channels—wrote to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to seek an investigation into what they saw as Republic TV’s unfair practices, and asked that BARC withhold publishing any viewership data for the channel until these stopped. When BARC did not heed the request, several leading English-language news channels pulled out of the BARC system. The news network TV Today also approached the Delhi High Court to object against Republic TV’s “unlawful” and “unethical” practices to boost their ratings. “The problem with this whole thing is that nobody is clean,” a veteran television anchor told us in November, when we asked him about the channel’s ratings. “The grouse now is that Arnab does it better than them.”
The court set the case aside after TRAI’s lawyer told it that investigations were already underway into Republic TV as well as several other channels, including India Today, in response to similar allegations. In early June, the Economic Times reported that TRAI had directed cable distributors to prevent channels from appearing on multiple LCNs. The order reportedly led to a decline in Republic TV’s viewership, but the channel continued to receive unprecedented viewership from certain categories of audiences.
Republic TV’s ratings were astounding not only for the numbers themselves, but also for certain unexplained trends in its viewership. In the first month of its launch, for example, about half of the channel’s entire traffic came from Chennai—although the channel did no major stories on Tamil Nadu. Even if it had done that, or had carried any content especially interesting to a predominantly Tamil viewership, the resulting traffic should have been spread across the state, and not restricted to just one city.
One explanation for this could be that Goswami, who anchors the channel’s flagship programming, is an extremely popular anchor in Chennai. But BARC numbers show that when he was at Times Now, Goswami’s average viewership in the city was five minutes per household per day; in the first month that Republic TV was broadcasting, the figure ballooned to 23 minutes. He was off the air for five months between his departure from Times Now and the launch of Republic TV. It is surprising that the long hiatus could have made him nearly five times more popular among viewers who did not watch him much in the first place.
Republic TV, in keeping with a common industry practice, has partnered with certain regional media companies to facilitate distribution in their respective areas. In Tamil Nadu, Goswami’s channel has collaborated with Polimer Media, which owns Polimer News, a Tamil-language satellite television channel based in Chennai. Polimer Media was founded by PV Kalyanasundaram.
Kalyanasundaram has a history of alleged manipulation of viewership ratings. In 2015, Polimer Media filed a complaint with the Competition Commission of India against TAM Media Research, the predecessor to BARC, regarding the terms of an agreement between the media company and the former ratings agency. Though the complaint was ultimately dismissed, the commission’s final order in the matter revealed that, in April 2013, TAM had issued a show-cause notice to Kalyanasundaram, then the CEO of Polimer Media. According to the order, TAM stated in the notice that it would be forced to drop Polimer News from its database because Polimer Media had “breached the security of viewership panel in an attempt to influence the ratings in its favour.”
The breach was a simple one. TAM’s (and now BARC’s) data-gathering methodology involved monitoring a select few thousand households spread across the country, divided into several demographic categories. The exact locations of these households were meant to be secret. If the location of any of these households were accessed by a network provider, they could bribe the household to tune into particular channels for certain hours during the week. Any money used could always be recovered because of the greater interest from advertisers and the higher advertising rates that accompany higher ratings. According to the commission’s order, TAM “had reasons to believe” that Kalyanasundaram “attempted to influence the viewers by offering them monetary benefits or gold coins.”
To put Republic TV’s viewership figure in Chennai in perspective, consider that the combined impressions received by every English news channel, from Chennai, in the first 18 weeks of this year (Republic TV launched in week 19), are less than what Goswami managed in his first four weeks. Another odd occurrence in the BARC numbers for Republic TV is that during its first two weeks the channel received 58 percent of the total available impressions across the entire English-language news category between 6 pm and 8 pm—a timeslot when Goswami is not even on the air. A senior anchor at another channel, who requested not to be identified, told us that Republic TV’s ratings in this slot were “an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of English news viewership in India.”
The BARC ratings also indicate that a single household in Gujarat, listed in the category of “Males 61+”, accounts for a disproportionate share of Republic TV’s weekly ratings. From at least as far back as October past year, Rahul Shivshankar, who replaced Goswami as the editor-in-chief at Times Now, has been complaining to Partho Dasgupta, the CEO of BARC, about what he has called “the Gujarat anomaly.”
In an email from 5 October, Shivshankar wrote to Dasgupta that the last time they met, Dasgupta “mentioned how Arnab’s hold over the English language market was superior to all others” to explain Republic TV’s towering ratings. Using BARC data for the period between week 34 and week 38 of the year, or mid August and mid September, on weekdays between 9pm to 11pm, Shivshankar showed that the prime-time viewerships of Times Now and Republic TV are relatively close across the country, except for in two regions—Bangalore, and cities in Gujarat with a population between 10 to 75 lakh. Republic TV’s advantage in those regions, however, was enough to grant it a generous lead in the overall ratings.
In this period, Republic TV led the competition, with 93,000 impressions—more than 40 percent of those registered across the entire English-language news market. But 50,000 of these impressions are from the Bangalore and Gujarat categories. Of the 36,000 total impressions from Gujarat in these five weeks, Republic TV registered 30,000, and of those, Shivshankar wrote to Dasgupta, 26,000 “come from just one household in the 61+ genre.”
“We know that in Bengaluru Republic TV employs double LCNS so we understand the jump and we also know you can’t do much about it,” Shivshankar notes. “We are even willing to live with that. But in Gujarat the spike is inexplicable and defies the genre.”
Four days later, Shivshankar got a response from Asti Misra, the vice president of business development at BARC. Misra writes, “The more you slice it down on … age goup, time band and marker, the higher the relative error.” (BARC’s sample size when it comes to English-language news is already small, given the genre’s relatively small audience in the country, and Shivshankar was whittling it down further in zooming in just on Gujarat.) This implied that within a larger sample the household’s deviation from the norm would fall within acceptable limits. Misra suggests that taking a time frame of ten weeks instead of five would show that Republic TV’s relative share of traffic from the Gujarat category had dipped.
“World over statistical analysts always jettison sample data that deviates from the normal,” Shivshankar responded. “This Gujarat [household] is an atypical viewer any defence of this is to bury or miss the point. The owner of another English news channel called me two days ago pointing out the same thing. Others are beginning to wake up to this fact.”
Shivshankar continued, “By your own admission the contribution from Gujarat 10-75L had come down but it still stands at 43% in the latest 3 weeks … At primetime viewership from just one market and perhaps one House hold!” He added, “This is making a mockery of the whole BARC system.” In response, Misra objected to Shivshankar’s focus on solely the Gujarat data, and repeated that “such behaviour is observed for mostly all the channels in niche genre and in English space.” But she categorically refused to reject the data that Shivshankar presented.
When we reached out to Dasgupta, he offered the same explanation for the “Gujarat anomaly” as that in the emails: that when you slice up the viewership data into small segments, the chance of relative errors becomes much higher. Dasgupta refused to discuss specific aspects of the ratings and their anomalous deviations. He told us, “I am not aware of what has been shared with you, by whom, and with what motivation. The emails you refer to could be part of privileged communication between BARC India and one its clients, and if they are indeed part of such communication, I see this as a grave breach of trust.” He added, “Therefore, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on them specifically.”
“I am aware of the BARC anomaly,” Shivshankar told us when we reached out for comment, confirming the authenticity of the emails. According to Shivshankar, the explanation offered by BARC “would not fly with any responsible statistician.” He continued, “Deviations need to be capped. Anomalies should be corrected over a span of time but this spike has been allowed to subsist for weeks. I think BARC knows it’s messing up.”
An earlier version of this report erroneously stated that PV Kalyanasundaram, the owner of Polimer Media, is a former organising secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. While a PV Kalyanasundaram was earlier the organising secretary of the DMK, he is not the same individual as the owner of Polimer Media, and does not have any connection with the media company. The Caravan regrets the error.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.
Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.